If your primary interests are capturing action, wildlife, events or need a bit of extra focal reach, a Nikon medium telephoto lens is the first consideration. Telephoto lenses are generally those over 60mm in focal length, with the medium telephoto zoom variety generally falling into the camp of 70-200mm.
The very common and highly useful 70-200mm zoom is a popular choice, but that doesn’t mean other lenses with wider or narrower range aren’t contenders. In this breakdown, for brevity and consistency, we will be focusing on zoom lenses rather than primes. Mainly because prime lenses in this category have a huge amount of options in themselves.
One other consideration is if the lens will be used on a full frame or APS-C sensor camera. On Nikon cameras, this equates to a 1.5x crop factor. Essentially, making a regular 70-200mm lens into a 105-300mm equivalent.
1. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (Overall Winner)
When a high-quality medium telephoto lens is needed, its the 70-200mm which gets the most votes. The 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II provides exceptional optical quality with a very useful image stabilization system providing four stops of compensation.
The internal glass comprises 21 elements in 16 groups, with seven Extra-low Dispersion (ED) elements, with a Nano Crystal and Super Integrated coating, along with a Silent Wave Motor for autofocusing duties.
A rounded nine-blade diaphragm and a flower-shaped lens hood are also included. The lens is reassuringly heavy at 1,540g, while also providing a tripod mount to hold up all that quality glass.
While this may be an expensive lens, it will provide all the image quality you could ever need in this focal range for the likes of wildlife photography.
2. Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports
Rather than being seen as a cheaper alternative to the Nikon medium telephoto lens above, the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports provides equal features in a third-party package. As with the Nikon, the Sigma provides all the optical quality you need in this focal range, with a constant f/2.8 aperture, image stabilization, and a higher than normal 11 rounded blade diaphragm.
The optics comprise 10 low dispersion elements, arranged in 24 elements and 22 groups, along with a Super Multi-Layer and water repellent coatings. The lens barrel itself is made from magnesium alloy, which isn’t completely weatherproofed, but the whole thing is built like a tank for everyday use.
Images from this lens are remarkably sharp from f/2.8 upwards, with the whole frame being ridiculously sharp from f/4. In total, this is a wonderful medium telephoto lens, which also benefits from firmware updates via the optional Sigma USB dock and is also available in a range of other camera mounts.
3. Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2
Depending on where your allegiances lie, the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 makes a fine alternative against the two offerings above. Some would argue that for almost half the money of the Nikon, it represents the best value on this list.
The constant f/2.8 aperture is wide enough for most low-light conditions, only beaten out by wider aperture prime lenses. The VC image stabilization system is one of the most comprehensive around, with five stops of compensation and three modes for general use, panning, and stabilization during capture.
The ring-type USD autofocus motor is wonderfully efficient, being extremely quick and precise, with the only evidence of focus hunting in the lowest of light conditions. Essentially, if you can’t stretch to the cost of the Nikon, and the Sigma doesn’t take your fancy, this Tamron SP 70-200mm provides an amazing amount of optical quality for the price.
4. Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports
The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports is big, heavy, and expensive, but for a lens that ranges from medium to long telephoto, it packs a load of professional-quality considering the price.
As you would expect from a lens covering such a wide focal length, there’s plenty of glass packed into the barrel. These include 23 elements arranged in 18 groups, which also feature two F Low Dispersion, one Special Low Dispersion (SLD) element, and a Super Multi-Layer coating.
The optical stabilization system comes in most useful at the longest focal lengths and the constant f/2.8 serves well for lovely bokeh effects and low-light performance.
Ultimately, the Sigma 120-300mm maybe a touch less efficient than the Nikon 70-200mm for the most discerning out there, but in every other respect, this is a remarkable lens for the likes of events and wildlife photography.
5. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR works as a great all-rounder and covers the most useful of focal lengths with extra reach at the telephoto end. The standout features here include image stabilization along with high-quality optics and a constant f/4 aperture.
Optically, the lens consists of three aspherical and two extra-low dispersion elements, along with a Nano Crystal and a Super Integrated Coating. The Vibration Reduction (VR II) works amazingly well, providing exceptionally low shutter speeds, which benefits DX models where the focal length comes out at 36-180mm.
This lens doesn’t just cover the medium telephoto range, but also verges into the wide-angle zone, making this lens a great choice for everyday use.
6. Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR (Budget Winner)
If you need the most cost-effective solution to cover the medium telephoto lens range, the Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm is a likely candidate. This lens is designed specifically for the DX-format, providing a 105-450mm focal length, with bonus features such as Vibration Reduction.
The lens has a very simple design, with the likes of autofocusing and stabilization controlled in-camera. The lens is a good performer with good image sharpness from f/4.5, but for just a few hundred dollars it obviously can’t compete with its higher-priced siblings. However, at this price point, you can’t really ask more for the money.
Selecting the Best Nikon Medium Telephoto Lenses
Nikon medium telephoto lenses require a lot of glass and optical correction to produce the best possible quality. This in turn generally means expensive lenses but also provides a build quality to take the punishment of daily professional use.
Therefore, the majority of the options above may seem initially expensive, but in the long run will provide you with the most satisfaction.